AW Kautzer's Film Review Film

Film Review: Champions (2023)


Director Bobby Farrelly’s Champions starring Woody Harrelson is the kind of low-key sports comedy with heart that we often talk about more than we see.  

Confession time.

Though I’m a huge fan of Basketball, I’m not a big fan of Hoosiers.  The ending is what does it for me.  A bunch of Indiana White Players beating a City Team of Black players just never left me feeling great rah-rah.  I’m more of a White Men Can’t Jump fanboy.  The rowdiness.  The low – but personally high – stakes.  The not even close to G-League talent guys.  The trash-talking that’s funnier than the NBA. The humanity and heart of it all.  That gives me a great feeling—that rah-rah-ness.  

I mention this because Woody Harrelson stars in both White Men Can’t Jump and Champions.  Champions is the anti-Hoosiers, with the Star at his most low-key charming and comedic best. The film adroitly casts Harrelson as a less than great human being in the outer banks of Basketball – Marcus, a coach rather than a player/hustler.  After a DUI he is sentenced to community service with the Friends Basketball team. 

As Marcus enters the rec center/gym where the Friends Basketball team practices and plays the film begins its humble and humane journey.  The Friends are a part of the Iowa region of the Special Olympics.  Rather than insult and belittle, Marcus slowly sees purpose and begins his long rough journey to finding what Basketball really means.  Basketball is in Marcus’s blood and he cannot help but coach no matter the stage or players.

The purity of the game that so many films attempt to show here is just something that is.  There isn’t anything stylish or elevated here.  Farrelly understands basketball as well as anyone that’s taken on the sport – so much so there’s a great “pick ‘n roll” joke that shouldn’t be ruined.  Though it’s not his greatest asset here.  

The biggest win and what elevates Champions is its director’s trust in his cast and the casting by Casting Directors Jim Heber and Rick Montgomery.  Beyond the casting of Kaitlin Olson, Ernie Hudson, and Cheech Marin in beautifully grounded earthy roles, it’s the casting of the Friends Basketball team players themselves.  The Casting of actors with intellectual disabilities and allowing them to never be cornered into a specific cliché or pandering piece of dramaturgy is the brilliance of Champions under Farrelly’s direction.  

Every actor from Kevin Iannucci, Joshua Felder, Madison Tevlin, Ashton Gunning, Matthew Von Der Ahe, Tom Sinclair, James Day Keith, Alex Hintz, Casey Metcalfe, and Bradley Edens all do fantastic work.  Though it’s Tevlin as Cosentino that steals the show – and your heart – her brash tough love player that shakes even the coach as needed.  The work between her and Harrelson is the stuff of magic as she plays off of the star as much as he does with her.  One would love nothing more than for these two to work together again on another project as the work is utterly delightful.  

A spiritual cousin to the Farrelly-produced The Ringer, Champions excels beyond that film because of its ability to sidestep any troubling plot machinations.  Though it’s heart like The Ringer is similarly placed with showing talent is talent is talent.  The magic trick of the entire film is how funny, humane, and heartwarming it all remains while still being the Sports Movie we expect.  Of course, there are those archetypical moments that any sports movie must have, and here it is no different.  But that never deters from the film but rather aids it in embracing those moments.  

Champions like the best sports films, winning or losing does not matter.  It’s the change in the team and the people around them.  To that end, Champions succeeds beyond most of its contemporaries and many of the genre’s pillars.  

Make sure to stay for a mid-credit sequence that’s as delightful as the film itself. 

Champions is in theaters March 10th

%d bloggers like this: